Whether we’re talking about functional parts for fighter jets or field components for field personnel, the military uses additive manufacturing in many different ways. The use cases are growing as 3D printing gets faster and more efficient.
Another critical reason for 3D printing uses cases in the military growing is the introduction of equipment-grade materials that are high-temperature and high-strength, specifically with composites such as Markforged Onyx.
At the U.S. Cannon Air Force Base, home of the 27th Special Operations Wing (27 SOW) near the Texas Panhandle, 3D printing is a tool for rapidly producing durable, high-quality parts and tooling for use in training exercises.
They use the Markforged X7 printer to produce components in-house, going from design to functional models in a matter of hours.
Fast access to replacement parts
The 27 SOSS combat training section goes hard on equipment and tooling, requiring fast, steady access to replacement parts. Additionally, the unit modifies equipment regularly to adapt to different training scenarios.
Modifying equipment to make it more lightweight and durable and enhance specific features is not straightforward with off-the-shelf components – shortages and parts that don’t exist are common issues that limit modification potential.
This requirement led the unit to 3D printing. The goal was to deliver necessary replacement items on-the-fly and create new items when needed.
3D printing – a military-grade solution
3D printing is the only technology in the world that lets you digitally design complex, three-dimensional parts and then produce them using military-grade materials in-house – all with a machine that fits on a desktop.
Lejay Colborn, the 27 SOSS Range Support Planning and Operations Specialist, had experience with 3D printing with the Air Force repair facility. The repair facility used additive manufacturing to produce replacement parts.
For the 27 SOSS, Colborn turned to 3D printing to produce replacement items quickly and create new components to enhance training and field exercises. He set up a 3D printing shop and chose the Markforged X7 for the job.
The X7 3D prints Continuous Carbon Fiber reinforced parts in hours that can be as strong as — and capable of replacing — machined aluminium. It prints Onyx filament (part nylon, part chopped carbon fibre) as the base material and can reinforce parts with Kevlar, fibreglass, or carbon fibre for additional strength.
The combat training unit 3D printed many tools airmen used in the field, including NVG mounts for night vision goggles. A single replacement mount can range from $100 to several hundred dollars – the 3D printed version costs just $5. And according to Colborn, his 3D printed NVG mounts are “just as strong as the commercial, off-the-shelf aluminium ones.”
The team also uses the Markforged X7 for prototyping as a creativity tool to create tooling, components, and equipment that change the game. The beauty of Onyx filament is it is lightweight yet extremely strong and dimensionally stable.
The Markforged X7 is also available as the X7 Field Edition, which has a Pelican AL3232 single lid case with custom foam modules and moving component locks to mitigate damage during transport.
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